I have a vivid memory of the first time I watched Kiki's Delivery Service. After the bell rung on the last day of seventh grade, I missed the bus to get a treat at the new smoothie stand nearby. I cut through the field behind the school, walking along the path worn in the tall grass. Finding myself home alone, I parked in front of the TV, zeroing in on an unfamiliar cartoon playing on the Disney Channel. It wasn't like the anime I'd timed my VCR to record during the day. Where were the muscular men punching holes through each other, and why wasn't anyone screaming so hard that new veins appeared in their forehead? This grounded, sometimes somber story about a young witch didn't have anything I usually looked for in after-school entertainment. But there I sat, slurping the juice around the rim of my half-melted smoothie, absorbed in a whimsical and melancholy world that felt every bit like summer vacation.
Princess Mononoke is more exciting and Spirited Away more dazzling, yet as time passes, I've found myself returning to Kiki more than any other Studio Ghibli film. It's one of those rare movies that has grown more precious with age, and each time I rewatch it I always find some new morsel to cherish. Here are some of my favorite tidbits I've held onto over the years.
Most of Kiki's Delivery Service takes place in Koriko, a picturesque location that's both fictional and familiar. On the DVD, director and famed anime regretter Hayao Miyazaki explains that Koriko is made up of several different cities from across the globe, including Paris, Lisbon and Napoli. By inventing an idealized European town, Ghibli can jump from a bustling metropolis in one scene to a serene seaside view moments later.
The quaint side of Koriko takes heavy inspiration from Visby, located on an island off the coast of the Swedish mainland. When I say "heavy inspiration," I mean it sometimes looks like the animators literally painted over a photograph of the Visby skyline.
The downtown area of Koriko was largely based on Stockholm, which you can see in many aspects of the city architecture (the tapered roofs, the rounded spires). The Swedish capital boasts several clock towers, one of which bears a resemblance to the building seen in the movie's late-game blimp disaster.
You can see where artists tweaked the design to make the tower bolder and more prominent in the cityscape. The animated clock face is larger (and also home to an old maintenance man), which ensures the audience will remember the landmark when the finale rolls around.
The Scenery of Ghibli documentary showcases another piece of Stockholm that was Ghibli-fied: The Bridge of Regeringsgatan. You can see the anime equivalent when Kiki is first exploring Koriko, gliding under a tunnel while trying to impress pedestrians (only to have a near-miss with a bus seconds later).
While these real-life equivalents may seem to place Koriko squarely in a Nordic country, Kiki's Delivery Service throws in a few elements to keep the city a smidge out of focus. The steep hills and cable cars are straight out of San Francisco, for instance.
Maybe the wildest thing that separates Koriko from reality is the map Kiki briefly holds up before embarking on a delivery run. The landscape matches up with the view from above, but the names on the map (Haleakala, Wailuku, Lahaina) come from the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Koriko is friendly, cozy and on occasion awe-inspiring -- but at the same time it can feel confusing, ambiguous and lonely. That makes it the perfect setting for a girl growing up and striking out on her own, experiencing a rush of freedom and the weight of independence at the same time. Kiki's Delivery Service endures in part because of how real its fantasy universe feels, down to the clothing of its protagonist.
Kiki might be a witch, but she's still human. Nowhere else is this more clear than in the flight scenes, where Kiki can be seen brushing a bit too close to trees, or pressing her foot on a rooftop to correct her trajectory. Our hero can also be seen adapting to domestic chores, tying up her trademark black dress when she scrubs the floor of her room (and later Ursula's home). Studio Ghibli didn't have to go to this effort, but in doing so they showed consideration to what a 13 year-old wearing a baggy garment would have to go through on a daily basis.
Later in the movie, Kiki volunteers to help cook with a firewood stove. She keeps her sleeves safe with clothespins.
There's a term in animation called "Bumping the Lamp," named after a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which a light fixture swings overhead. Since Roger Rabbit goes through great pains to make its hybrid live-action/animated world seem believable, altering light and shadow during those composite shots meant a great deal more work for the production team. And yet they bumped that lamp anyway, because they wanted to make their film that much more special.
Ghibli often follows this same ethos, adding flourishes that, while wholly unnecessary to the storytelling, nevertheless enrich the world on the screen. Here's a tiny example in Kiki's Delivery Service:
When Ursula offers her friend some candy, she shakes a bit too hard and Kiki scrambles to contain the sudden surplus.This moment would have been fine without that extra wrinkle (hell, it could have been removed altogether), but these touches have a cumulative effect, rolling up in a ball of care and texture. Kiki's fumble remains fleeting and frivolous, yet it also adds a grounded vibrance that has become Ghibli's trademark.
Plenty of Ghibli films contain sneaky references, but Kiki's Delivery Service might be the first movie from the studio to have easter eggs in the type and quantity we're used to today. After Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies (the latter two of which were released in the world's most traumatic double-feature), Ghibli's fourth official film may have been the first to have room and reason for secrets.
And so, we have Mei and Little Totoro peering out from the windows on Kiki's shelf, looking on as the next Ghibli hero begins her adventure.
It's tough to imagine anyone catching these mini-cameos in theaters, much less on grainy VHS home video. The Studio Ghibli-emblazoned bus may have been easier to spot, but it does go by in a flash.
Then there's Kiki's pancake mix. The box reads "Jiburi No Hot Keki" -- as in, "Ghibli's Hot Cakes."
This one is harder to catch without prior information. Just after Kiki's dramatic rescue, a man can be seen in the top-right corner of the screen. This man is a caricature of a young Hayao Miyazaki.
Modern animated movies are chock-full of easter eggs, and why not? For viewers, they're an easily-digestible nugget deposited into their fandom trivia bank. For executives, they're subsidized by (clever, well-written, award-worthy) articles and videos that pore over minutiae and encourage engagement of present and future products. That aside, it's heartening to see the extra work put into these films long before the age of digital freeze frame -- even if most of the easter eggs are shameless self-promotion.
This movie has no antagonist. Instead, the dastardly villain of Kiki's Delivery Service manifests as self-doubt, dragging the hero to the ground, forcing her to deal with a personal crisis. We know from the awestruck expressions of the townspeople that Kiki's talent is remarkable and true, but social anxiety and a heaping helping of impostor syndrome rob her of magic that allows her to fly and also talk to her pet cat, Jiji. The coming-of-age story ends when Miss Witch gathers up the determination to take to the skies once more in order to save her friend Tombo. All is as it should be. That is, except for Jiji, who will never talk again.
Those lines of communication might be severed, but that cut marks a step forward into adulthood for Kiki, who no longer needs a Jiminy Cricket by her side. The return of the young witch's flight and the regression of Jiji stand as the most significant signals of growth -- unless you're counting personal possessions.
In the introduction for The Art of Kiki's Delivery Service, Miyazaki notes that Kiki takes two objects to Koriko that represent the guidance of her mother and father. The first is a distinctive red portable radio, which blasts over the night sky during the opening credits. Kiki begs for/arguably steals this item from dear old dad, who is more than happy to give it up.
Flash forward an hour into the running time. A despondent Kiki has just survived an awkward encounter with Tombo's friends, and she's mere moments away from realizing her magic is gone. Kiki turns on her father's radio, and seconds later turns it back off. This totem of parental guidance isn't as comforting as it once was.
Kiki brings the second object to Koriko at the request of her mother. Before seeing her daughter off on her journey, Kokiri foists an old broom onto Kiki, reasoning that a larger ride will prove more reliable.
Having spent time on her own broom, Kiki doesn't want her mother's musty hand-me-down. After some protest, the hero relents and decides that training wheels are okay, for now. You could argue this backfires, since not long after the radio fails as an effective security blanket, Mama Witch's old broom ceases to work as well.
When Kiki finds herself in desperate need of a broom, she has no choice but to grab one off the street and make it her own.
The training wheels are off. When Kiki regains her magic through sheer force of will, she does so on her own terms, with her own rig.
An epilogue of sorts plays over the credits. Months later, after Jiji fathers a litter of kittens, Kiki is seen still riding that same pushbroom she used when she rediscovered her sense of self. Parental totems are now a thing of the past.
The stumpy sweeper is such a vital part of Kiki's newfound identity that Tombo includes it in a new store sign. On top of that, the public seems to associate this accessory with the town hero. Look closely at the little girl imitating Kiki and you'll see she's sporting a mini-pushbroom of her own.
These are the kinds of details that make me return to Kiki's Delivery Service. It might skew younger than most other Ghibli films, but its themes, its messages and its heart are timeless. I don't go to school anymore, but I know at least one place to find the excitement, the gloom and the spirit of summer vacation.